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Preview: Portland Dance Film Fest ups the ante

This year's collection of 29 films features striking portraits of humanity from across the globe.


A still from ‘An Evening With Taglioni’ by director-choreographer duo Jess and Morgs.

Portland Dance Film Fest returns to the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium on October 7-9 for its sixth annual multi-evening celebration of dance on film. Featuring 29 films from 12 countries across the globe, the festival consists of three different screenings over the three days, each ranging from 88-105 minutes in length.

From January through May, festival organizers Kailee McMurran, Jess Evans, and Tia Palomino, along with a panel of six other judges, viewed a total of 243 films before deciding on the carefully curated collection that has made this year’s PDFF its most impressive to date. From choreography to narrative content, the films chosen demonstrate that dance filmmakers around the world have raised the bar on what is, and should be considered, dance for film. The pieces about loss, friendship, sisterhood, community, Black joy, hardship, and resilience all go hand in hand with PDFF’s aim to foster connectivity through the celebration of individuality.

Still from ‘Elegy of Lost Things’ by director Stefano Mazzotta.

Out of all 29 films, the highlight of this year’s PDFF is the Italian film Elegy of Lost Things, a stunning 48-minute art piece depicting life in a rural town. Inspired by Portuguese author Raul Brandão’s novel Os Pobres (The Poor), director Stefano Mazzotta delivers a portrait of morality, estrangement, sociopolitical consideration, and realism. The 48-minute-long film views like an arthaus flick and delivers stunning performances in both dance and acting from the cast. The choreography is as wonderfully subtle and asymetrical as the shot choices and the coloring, which adds a realistic sun-bleached haze over the quietly riveting story. Elegy of Lost Things is impeccable in its versatility, offering humour, tragedy, family drama, mundanity, camaraderie, joy, and melancholy all in one. With thematic nods to Pina Bausch’s The Nelken Line, it is a revelation of a dance film that should not be missed—the best since the works of Édouard Lock’s La La La Human Steps and the beloved 1991 Reines d’un Jour (Queens for a Day) by Swiss director Pascal Magnin.

As unique and heartwarming as it is gutting, Canadian film They Dance With Their Heads by director, visual artist, and Université du Québec à Montréal professor Thomas Corriveau, explores the relationship between artist and art through a narrative about a severed head atop a lonely island peak. The absurdist film is less traditional dance than animation, but that doesn’t hinder its impeccable sense of beauty, grit, and humour. Without a hint of ego, the film leaves the viewer refreshed by the accomplishment of true marriage between dance, film, and wit.

Still from ‘They Dance With Their Heads‘ by director Thomas Corriveau.

French film What I Know So Far by director, visual artist, and former Pilobolus dance company member, Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern goes to show that less is more. Set atop a scenic coastal cliffside, dancer Emilie Louise Leriche folds, collapses, and rebounds to the words of a straightforward prose poem she penned. The beauty of this work is found in its simplicity, carried by Ahern’s careful camera work and the sophisticated subdued coloring done in post-production which renders the greens of the grassy hillside invitingly familiar rather than distracting.

Also by Shawn Fitzgerald Ahern and Emilie Louise Leriche featuring a cast of dancers, On Mending views like a sequel to What I Know So Far. The cinematography offers vast, sweeping vistas of a chilly landscape while the colorist, yet again, excells at delivering an impeccable understated and desaturated palette. While it must be said that the film closely mimics Magnin’s Reines d’un Jour (Queens for a Day) in not only tone and location but also movement quality and wardrobe symbolism, that doesn’t take away from the work. The dancers nicely execute the weighted contact-based choreography and the film maintains a soft yet grounded temperament throughout.

Still from ‘SHE’ by director Emil Dam Seidel.

One of Program 3’s standout films from Denmark and Sweden is SHE. Directed by Emil Dam Seidel, the seven-and-a-half minute long film is one of the only films in the festival that truly delves into the world of semi-narrative science fiction. The work address isolation, obligation, and the productivity culture faced by individuals across the world through the lens of a seemingly sentient AI interviewing a woman who may or may not be AI herself. Through subtle movement mechanics, verbal cues, and gorgeously filmed stop-motion-style choreographic interludes, we are given insight into the disgruntled mind of the protagonist.

An Evening with Taglioni by British director-choreographer duo Jess and Morgs is a wacky tale about a group of friends and their devotion to Romantic-era ballerina Marie Taglioni. The film’s cinematography is well done—held to high-quality craft in terms of lighting, framing, coloring, and sound design. The fun and campy piece lives seamlessly between blockbuster narrative and early-aughts indie film, delivering moments of suspense, psychedelia, classical ballet technique, parallels to religious lore, and straight-up B horror.

Polish film Zielnik/Herbarium from choreographer, dramatist, and director Iwona Pasińska is another study in simplicity. It features a large cast of dancers from Polish Dance Theatre shot steadily from above as they traverse a beige floor covered first in foliage, then confetti, and foliage once more. Set to the suite Peer Gynt op. 1 performed by Trondheim Symfoniorkester & Opera, the audience is gifted a sweet and simple ode to the seasons without the clutter of melodrama or trendiness.

To experience the films for yourself, get tickets to see the show live at the Whitsell Auditorium on October 7-9 by visiting the Portland Dance Film Fest website. The Whitsell Auditorium is located inside the Portland Art Museum at 1219 SW Park in Downtown Portland.

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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